USA's World Cup over, but things look promising

United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

CHRIS WONDOLOWSKI will undoubtedly have a recurring nightmare.

Ever since he started kicking a soccer ball, he probably dreamed of a moment like this - every kid does.

It's the closing moments of a World Cup elimination game and a game-winning opportunity is gifted to your foot.

In your dream, you are perfect. You do everything right and slam the ball into the back of the net.

Reality wasn't as kind.

Wondolowski was far from perfect on his attempt in the closing moments of the United States Round of 16 loss to Belgium yesterday in Salvador, Brazil.

His shot at an open net went off target and sailed over the goal, and, while Belgium needed to go into the 30-minute extra time to score the decisive goals, Team USA's exit from Brazil and the 2014 World Cup was sealed with Wondolowski's miss.

It was a 2-1 loss. There is no getting around that. The bottom line is Belgium will move on to play Argentina in the quarterfinals, and the United States failed to get out of the Round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup.

Those are the facts and cannot be argued with those who might want to deride the USA as again not being good enough to run with the big dogs of international soccer.

Some who don't closely follow the world's game might think that because Belgium is not a traditional power like Brazil, Italy, Germany or Argentina, perhaps the United States choked as it did against Ghana in South Africa in 2010.

Belgium is young, but it has as many talented players as any nation in the world.

Les Diables Rouges were the superior team on paper and, in the end, on the pitch. They dominated the U.S. squad.

Were it not for a jaw-dropping effort by U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who made 16 saves, many of them world class, this match would have been lost cleanly in regulation.

Honestly, it is a bit cruel that the 31-year-old Wondolowski will have such an unsatisfying memory for what will likely be his only World Cup.

But his missed opportunity was a snapshot of what level the USA must still reach to beat the best nations in the world.

The United States showed grit and heart and just enough quality to advance out of a "Group of Death" - no small feat.

Still, surviving a knockout game in a World Cup requires a team to have a 23-man roster as deep in talent as the opposition.

The United States could go no further than seven or eight when lined up against Belgium, and that came into play.

Wondolowski, who came in for Graham Zusi in the 72nd minute, missed.

Romelu Lukaku, one of the world's promising, young strikers, came in for Belgium in the 91st minute and decided the match. Lukaku set up the ice-breaker goal for Kevin de Bruyne in the 93rd minute, then scored what would end up being the game-winner in the 105th.

"It's heartbreaking," Howard said. "I don't think we could have given more. We got beat by a really good team, so hats off to Belgium, because they were fantastic.

"We gave our all. Sometimes when you dream and give your best shot, it still doesn't come off."

It is no more complicated than this - when the United States develops the overall talent to match the heart and effort it shows every time it plays, challenging for a World Cup will be more than just a dream.

But this USA performance in Brazil offers hope that wasn't there when it exited South Africa 4 years ago

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was criticized for some of the players he selected for the World Cup roster - particularly young ones such as DeAndre Yedlin (20), Aron Johannsson (23), John Brooks (21) and Julian Green (19), who all had fewer than 10 caps.

All contributed.

Yedlin, an MLS All-Star defender as a rookie last season with Seattle, was his team's best substitute.

Johannsson stepped in when forward Jozy Altidore was injured less than 20 minutes into the opening match.

Brooks, who also came in as an injury substitute, scored the game-winner against Ghana.

Green, who was thrust into the center of the raging storm when he was selected over Landon Donovan, scored the extra-time goal against Belgium that ignited the USA to a whirlwind push in the final 10 minutes that almost produced an equalizer.

He became the youngest player to score in a World Cup for the United States.

Before the tournament, many cried that Klinsmann was sacrificing the 2014 World Cup to set up for 2018, through which he is under contract.

That was always a naïve argument because this roster was actually older than the one in 2010.

It will likely be the only World Cup for several aging first-time choices, such as Wondolowski, Jermaine Jones (32), Kyle Beckerman (32) and Brad Davis (32).

Mainstays such as Howard (35), Clint Dempsey (31), and DaMarcus Beasley (32) might have ridden into the World Cup sunset.

The truth is that Klinsmann picked a roster that gave the USA its best chance to succeed in Brazil, while setting the table for the run in Russia in 2018.

"If you look at the four games we played in Brazil, we did a tremendous job," Klinsmann said. "We moved out of a group that no one expected us to. We pushed Belgium to the limit. We can all be very proud of these players.

"We take a tremendous amount from this experience. We know that we can play eye to eye with the big nations. We see some young players coming into the ranks.

"After you finish a World Cup, you discuss the future and that goes to the young players in our program. We build for the next cycle."

Maybe by then, the United States will have enough overall talent to turn dreams into realities.

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